Yesterday, I joined eighth-grade students for a session to process our experience at the March for Israel on Tuesday. About 200 notecards covered the desks, each with a different emotion written on it: appreciative… flustered… invigorated… angry… moved…heartbroken… confused…curious… terrified… guilty… exhausted… inspired… motivated…impatient… renewed…
We work on naming and describing our emotions in all grades. Watching small children choose their words carefully as they describe how they feel is delightful, hilarious, and inspiring. There is nothing like overhearing a conversation between two five-year-olds that begins something like this: “It bugs me when you cut me in line, and I feel frustrated when I get pushed to the back; I wish you would look at me and say, excuse me and ask if you can stand in front of me.” Of course, this takes a lot of practice, commitment, and patience from educators. The other day, I passed by a kindergarten class where one student shrieked from frustration as the class made their way to PE. It was the sort of shriek that precedes chaos, but a moment later, I saw the student and teacher quietly talking things through just a couple of feet away from the class, the other students waiting calmly for their friend and teacher to complete their conversation. The teacher squatted down close to the child and said, “I think you might feel frustrated. Is that right?” An effective and concise learning opportunity ensued.
As a fly on the wall in our eighth-grade classroom, I could see the impact of years of pro-social education. Students moved adeptly through the card selection process, then joined small groups to explain the cards they chose, and followed the protocols, responding to their partners with the phrases, “I heard you say…,” and “I think you feel…” They knew what they were doing, and they understood how to express their feelings, that multiple feelings can co-exist at the same time, that people can leave the same experience with different emotions, and, most importantly, that talking about our feelings is a normal thing to do in the community. When it was over, they thanked the facilitator and transitioned like adolescents to their next class, with giggles and distractions.
I had been very nervous about taking our students to the March for Israel in Washington, DC. I am not at all worried about talking with our students about Zionism and our obligations to the Jewish people and the State of Israel. My favorite part of being an educator is having messy and intense conversations with children, ones that highlight nuance and require kids to articulate how they see themselves to fit into the story of our people. The reason I was nervous is that rallies make me nervous. The purpose of demonstrations is to make your point in the most simple and loud way possible. I believe in the importance of this- critically so. This is why I force myself to show up at rallies for causes I believe in, like the March for Israel. However, as an educator, I generally avoid this sort of activism with my students because we focus on teaching nuance, extended conversations rather than slogans, and talking rather than screaming. Nonetheless, we attended because we knew our children needed to be there, to be counted, and to hold the lifelong memory of having been counted.
On the bus ride to the DC, students led us in a festival Hallel prayer, in honor of Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the new Jewish month. We shared snacks and bonded with each other. Kids listened to Jewish pop music and Taylor Swift. We had no traffic, and then we quickly made our way on the DC metro to the march. We arrived in time for the youth program, which was entirely facilitated by sweet and articulate high school students from across the country.
I was incredibly relieved by the external circumstances working out as they did. We didn’t encounter screaming, obscenities, or the sort of angry speech that shows up at demonstrations (and would be legitimate in these circumstances!) at any point in the day. We didn’t see counter-protests or experience any antisemitism. Overall, the experience felt safe, dignified, and inspiring.
As it turns out, the internal circumstances- the kids we are raising- are what should give me and all of us the most relief. They had so much to say about their experiences and were interested in hearing about each other’s experiences. Listening to them, I thought about how they are the bright light in all this. They and the thousands of other Jewish day school students who attended this rally should give us hope. They know what they are doing- as human beings and as Jews. They are grounded in values and have tools to engage with others around their values.
We were lucky with the external factors working out on Tuesday. That was great, but it was luck, and we all know luck is unreliable. The internal factors living in our incredible next generation are founded on something other than luck. It is about the investment we as a school and the Jewish people as a whole have put into these children. These kids are growing up with thoughtful and high-quality Jewish communal infrastructure- day schools, camps, youth movements, synagogues, etc.- that our community has invested deeply in over the past fifty years. We saw the fruit of this investment at the March for Israel on Tuesday, and I saw it yesterday in our eighth-grade classroom. It is working, and that gives me a feeling far more significant than relief. It gives me hope.